Time ticks forward: A conversation with Walter von Känel, president of Longines

Time ticks forward: A conversation with  Walter von Känel, president of Longines

When it comes to Swiss watchmaking, Longines remains steadfast in its reputation for timeless elegance.

A member of the Swatch Group, the brand’s legacy dates back to 1832, when the company was founded in Saint-Imier, Switzerland. Since then, Longines’ timepieces have donned the wrists of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, as well as Albert Einstein, Humphrey Bogart, and Audrey Hepburn. Its watches have timed Formula 1 laps, French Open Tennis Championship matches, and Kentucky Derby races, and have attracted an impressive line-up of celebrity brand ambassadors, including Kate Winslet, Simon Baker, and Aaron Kwok, featured on this issue’s cover.

Company president, Walter von Känel, also brings a storied history. Born in Schwerin, Germany, von Känel grew up in Switzerland, where he developed a fascination with watchmaking at an early age. In 1969, after working at a watch dial manufacturing company for several years, he joined Longines as a sales executive. In 1988, he was appointed company president.

JB caught up with him in New York City this past February. He had flown in from his headquarters in Switzerland to celebrate the launch of Longines’ new HydroConquest Green at the Elizabeth Collective, a midtown gallery that is said to have once been home to Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor. There, we discussed the beauty of women’s timepieces, the mechanics of Swiss watchmaking, and the secret to staying timeless in an ever-changing industry.

Jewellery Business: What would you say sets Longines apart from other luxury watch brands?

Walter von Känel: Well, we have been in this business since 1832—so, when we say we are a watch brand with long tradition, we are telling the truth. Beyond our longevity, we have transformed over the years—going from a privately owned company, to a small joint venture, to becoming a member of the Swatch Group. Despite all of these modifications of ownership, we progress.

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Early on [in the company’s history], we decided to focus. I believe, personally, you cannot do everything, and that’s certainly true within the watch industry. As such, we have stayed focused, particularly within our price segment. We have actually seen some new [watchmakers] coming into the Longines price territory, which is a good sign—it’s always good to have competition so you don’t fall asleep!

JB: How do you think the increasing presence of online shopping has affected watch sales? Do most customers still prefer the personal experience that brick-and-mortar stores offer?

WvK: You have to accept realities: you cannot stay alone in a tower, ignoring things that are changing. E-commerce is a reality.

Time ticks forward: A conversation with  Walter von Känel, president of Longines

Our retailers are part of Longines’ success, and, as such, it is my duty to protect them. To that, we do not offer discounts for e-commerce as compared to in-store shopping. We have to be careful, especially regarding international sales. Further, our retailers respect territories—an American retailer for example, cannot sell to Canada. This provision is in place to protect local salespeople.

However, because of the international success of the brand, we see a lot of grey market offerings [from unauthorized distributors], which are mostly through e-commerce. These channels don’t want old watches, either; they want new models, which are bought in Italy, for example, and resold online. It’s always a bit of a battle with those who buy this way and choose not to respect the territory rules.

Again, this is a reality for all brands in the luxury sector, and we do what we can to ensure the restrictions put in place are respected. If you have built a successful brand in this industry, you will have to contend with fakes and the grey market—after all, only recognizable brands are duplicated.

JB: Women’s watches have enjoyed a rise in popularity in recent years. Is that something you’ve noticed?

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WvK: Longines has offered ladies’ watches for many years—dating back to the 1910s. As manufacturers, we took on those models very early, which meant we were equipped with the proper tools needed to create them.

When I was overseeing the brand’s business in Japan, there was a tendency to sell ‘pair’ watches for a man and a woman—the same design, but in two different sizes. We realized this could provide us with increased turnover.

Nowadays, regarding women’s timepieces, we carry two sizes, and for gents’ we have three. Partly because of our ‘pair’ watch policy, half of the pieces we offer are designed for women.

Today, we are seeing more ladies buying for themselves. Additionally, watches remain a popular gift for women to receive from their husbands or boyfriends.

JB: Is there a push to include more ‘tech-savvy’ elements into Longines’ designs/relaunches to stay competitive in an increasingly ‘smart tech’ era?

WvK: ‘Connected watches’ are another reality that must be accepted in this industry.

I have always been very clear regarding the brand: we will not go into connected. When it comes to competing with the companies currently dominating in that market, you cannot match their speed.

That said, ‘connected’ is not a question of design; it’s a question of feature. For smartwatches, consumption is often the biggest enemy, be it consumer or battery.

JB: Do you remember your first watch? Is there a story behind that piece?

WvK: Growing up, I was a very poor boy living in a farmhouse, so my first watch was the rooster, ‘cuckooing’ in the morning to wake me up. A close second was the church clock in my childhood village in Switzerland.

But, truthfully, my first watch was given to me by my school girlfriend, who went on to become my wife. She was working at that time as a telephone operator at Longines. Before I shipped off with the army in 1963, she gave me a watch—a Longines. I still have it, of course.


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